What is a Triathlon?

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What is a triathlon? The answer is pretty straightforward – a triathlon is a race that consists of three elements, namely swimming, cycling, and running. This continuous race tests athletes’ abilities and endurance. Although a triathlon officially has three disciplines, there is an unofficial “fourth discipline”, i.e., the transition between each element. During the transition, athletes aim to get to the next element as fast as possible, with it counting toward the total time taken to complete the triathlon.

History of the Triathlon

The triathlon goes back to France in the 1920s, where it was a race called “Les trois sports”, which translates to “the three sports.” While it initially consisted of running, cycling, and canoeing, it then became more like the triathlon we know today, with the three events being running, cycling, and swimming.

The first modern triathlon, however, took place in San Diego in 1974, with athletes completing an 8 km run, 8 km cycle, and an 800 m swim. In 1975, it became closer to the version we see today, with individuals completing an 800 m swim, 8 km cycle, and an 8 km run. The triathlon officially became an Olympic sport in 1989, with the first Olympic triathlon taking place in Sydney in 2000.

Distances in Triathlons

Triathlons can have a range of distance requirements and differ between various events. Here are the four most common variations.

Olympic Guidelines

The international Olympic guidelines are the most commonly used. Under these, the swimming component is 1.5 km, the cycling component is 40 km, and the running component is 10 km.

Ironman Triathlon Guidelines

One of the most famous triathlons out there, the Ironman Triathlon consists of a 3.9 km swimming component, a 180 km cycling component, and a 42.2 km running component.

Half Ironman Guidelines

As evident by the name, this is half of the previous set, and comprises of a 1.93 km swim, 90 km cycle, and a 21 km run.

Mini Triathlon Guidelines

Mini triathlons are no easy feat. They, too, require physical strength, and consist of a 0.8 km swim, 24 km cycle, and a 5 km run.

Order of Events in a Triathlon

So, what is a triathlon in terms of order of events? In triathlons, this is almost always swimming, biking, and then running. However, this is not always the case since events can be combined or switched under different circumstances. For example, aquathons combine swimming and running, whereas cold-weather triathlons usually consist of running, mountain biking, and skiing.

The reason for the swimming-biking-running order is usually because of safety reasons since athletes need to be the most energized when swimming. Further along in the triathlon, athletes begin experiencing fatigue – to eliminate the risk of drowning, swimming almost always comes first. This is also why cycling is the second sport and not the last – it can be dangerous even when athletes are fully alert and can get extremely risky when they are exhausted.

Additionally, because swimming usually requires a wetsuit, it makes sense to get it over with first. After all, taking off a wetsuit is much easier than putting it on. This would be especially difficult after cycling and running, and so, is completed first. This ensures that athletes maintain speed and can finish the rest of the triathlon in time.

Triathlon from Start to Finish

If you’re a beginner, don’t worry. Here, we’ve broken down the triathlon for you – each step is detailed so that your first triathlon experience is a good one!

Swimming Leg

This is the first component of a triathlon, and one that sets the tone for the rest of the race. The swimming leg of a triathlon can take place in either a pool or in open water, such as the lake or sea. While there can be more structured starts, a common way is the mass start, where all the competitors start at the same time.

Transition 1: Swim to Bike

This is the first transition in a triathlon and needs to be organized in order to minimize time. Athletes have to remove their swimsuits or wetsuits, put on biking gear, and retrieve their bikes. While this sounds easy enough, it can be challenging when you’re freshly out of the water. Practicing beforehand can help with this.

Biking Leg

The biking leg is the second component in a triathlon and consists of athletes biking on roads. One of the most important aspects to know about this stage is to avoid drafting – this can lead to a penalty or disqualification. In essence, you must keep a safe distance from another athlete (usually 12 m) unless you are overtaking them.

Transition 2: Bike to Run

This second transition consists of bikers changing into running gear and starting the running leg of the triathlon. While this sounds easy, many athletes train and practice beforehand to ensure that they’re being as fast as possible. That being said, it is much easier than the first transition.

Running Leg

The last component of the triathlon is the running leg, which can be on roads or on park trails. Runners are almost at the end and very fatigued. However, there are aid stations available on the way to ensure that athletes can regain their energy.

It is important to train for triathlons beforehand to ensure that when you reach this phase, you can still continue. Because you are shifting from a bike to your legs, it can be difficult to adjust at first. This is another reason practicing before a triathlon is so important.

Our Final Thoughts

Now that you know the answer to the question “What is a triathlon?”, you can be sure to prepare yourself and train beforehand before entering one. Another important aspect to consider is what you’ll need for a triathlon. To know more about that, check out our post on what athletes need for triathlons.

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